Ever heard about a new band, but had no idea where to start listening? Breaker Japan’s resident music expert, Luke, emerges from a dark corner of the office to help you out. Every month, he’ll be handing out his thoughts on the most original musical acts in Japan. In a musical landscape usually associated with girl groups and anime robot singers, these are the artists that make the Japanese music scene come to life.
Tokyo-based band Wonk label themselves as an “experimental soul band”, a label that doesn’t quite touch on the breadth of their sound. Sometimes reaching acid jazz, other times the groove of funk powers through all the while keeping the casual coolness of hip hop and R&B running true in each track.
Officially four members make up the band: Kento Nagatsuka on vocals, Ayatake Ezaki on the keys, bassist Kan Inoue and drummer Hikaru Arata. However, part of Wonk’s ethos is to involve a community of musicians, rappers and singers to achieve that breadth of sound. They even completed a full length collaboration album with a New York future soul band, The Love Experiment.
In 2013, drummer Hikaru pushed to form a band of driven and talented musicians by searching for potential candidates at his university music circles. Once formed the group of music otaku took heavy influence from unorthodox Jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk. Yet, saying “influenced” doesn’t seem to quite cut it. It’s more like a borderline obsession.
The band name, “Wonk,” comes from flipping Monk upside down. The name of their first album, Sphere, is taken from Monk’s middle name and it features him on the cover with his brains literally being picked with some chopsticks. The name of their independent label, Epistroph, is taken from a jazz standard composed by Monk, regarded as the first classic modern jazz composition. On top of that, Monk appears in the animated music video “Cyberspace Love” and they even wrote a whole album dedicated to him, Monk’s Playhouse. They really like this guy.
Hence it’s easy to see where the jazz influence comes from. Even though Sphere won the CD Shop Awards prize for best jazz album, Wonk can’t simply be classified as jazz. According to Wonk’s mission statement they “focus on breaking down the genre barriers and touching the hearts of music lovers.” They aim to be a fusion band and Japan is having a hard time understanding where they fit in.
Aside from educating Japan on borderless music, Wonk work hard on constructing a fashion-conscious image. Their music has been used for a sleek urban Casio commercial and the whole band featured playing their music while modelling new trendy sports gear from Adidas. They are the faces in a Kangol catalog, plus they’ve even ended up on billboards in the fashion hub of Harajuku.
With an image and a musical influence juxtaposed to anything inherently Japanese, they claim to pioneer the “black music scene” in Tokyo, something that seems to be becoming more understood by the Japanese youth. It’s just about time to try make America and the West understand a little bit more, too.
Kento sings entirely in English and, according to an interview with The Japan Times, is the reason being they want their “music to be heard overseas.” There’s nothing stopping them apart from a bit more exposure. So let us see what you think.
Real Love feat. JUA & Shun Ishiwaka
A track from Wonk’s debut album, Sphere, that mixes soulful singing with a experimental hip hop style reminiscent of Flying Lotus or Shigeto. It’s a pleasing sample heavy sound with squelchy synths and technically accomplished drums.
Gather Round feat. Matzuda Hiromu
In September 2017 they released twin albums Castor and Pollux. These albums were deliberately split up due to their styles. Castor aims to have songs that hit more of an accessible tone with tracks that feel right being played as the glory of a full band. “Gather Round feat. Matzuda Hiromu” has a danceable appeal similar to Jamiroquai. Check out the music video for an interesting insight into Wonk’s idea of an acid trip.
Another song from Castor, one that takes it down a notch to chillout mode. Kento’s vocals shine through and become this ethereal presence created by the heavy church hall reverb. Paired with Hikaru’s taut beat, “Midnight Cruise” flows over you with a serene sense of satisfaction.
Economic Wonderland feat. Epic
On the other hand, the twin of Castor, Pollux, is reserved for more of the sample heavy, beat-driven tunes that would fit right in at 2am at a murky club in Tokyo. This track features Mc Epic rapping over the versus. Kento picks up in the choruses cutting through with his falsetto to create that common hip hop back and forth dynamic.
Another killer track from “Sphere”. The groove of the drums and fluid basslines are seductive enough without the the introduction of the slightly dissonant saxophone. It’s impossible to deny sax is sexy.